OMTA Musical Merrily Rolls Along with New Production


Sarah Herdrich

OMTA presents a quirky, innovative take on George Furth’s book Merrily We Roll Along with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Oberlin Musical Theater Association is producing Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along as their spring semester musical — a show non-theater enthusiasts may recognize from its charming, dysfunctional portrayal in the recent film Lady Bird. The musical, which will continue into the weekend, is a story of friendship — specifically, the friendship between three creators — moving chronologically backwards. There’s Franklin Shepard, an aspiring composer turned movie producer; Charley Kringas, his collaborator and a lyricist turned writer; and their friend Mary Flynn, a writer who wrote one book and then never wrote again.

“You’re seeing how their lives are, already knowing what the consequences are of the choices that you watch them make during the scene,” College senior and co-director Julia Butterfield said.

Merrily We Roll Along flopped when it first debuted in 1981, running for only a few weeks on Broadway. However, “it became a cult classic, and it’s changed a lot,” in the words of College sophomore and co-director Abigail Bowman.

The general consensus from the cast is that this musical is an unconventional one, marked by the quirky, innovative nature of Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

“Embarrassingly, this was one of my favorite shows of all time before this,” said College first-year Connor O’Loughlin, who plays Franklin Shepard. “I was in Heathers last semester, and I was really busy and it ate up a lot of my time, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to do musical theater next semester unless it’s Merrily We Roll Along’ — and then it was Merrily We Roll Along.”

“What’s interesting to me is that even though it feels like a lot has changed at the beginning of the show — which is the end of their lives — not a lot about them has actually changed,” Butterfield said. “They’re all still driven by the same thing.”

To hear her tell it, the cast of Merrily was quite a driven group themselves.

“One of the great things for me about this whole process is that everybody in this show was so great to work with,” she said. “They all really seemed to enjoy coming to rehearsal and enjoy working with each other and working on this material. And a lot of them knew this show before and had a deep love for it — and then some of them didn’t, and now I think they really love it. … That’s been really rewarding for me in doing this, is seeing how people have poured so much love into this show.”

Last year, Butterfield directed Assassins — also a Sondheim composition — with College junior Alex Ngo as music director. She and Ngo decided to continue their Sondheim trend with this musical, and it’s been an exciting project for them. For Ngo especially, as music director, the process was very involved.

“I was rehearsing six or seven days a week [between the cast and the pit] for the last three months or so, and just making sure that everything comes together individually with the music and the cast, and also ensuring that when you put them both together it is seamless,” Ngo said. “Even in this show, my ability to teach music and assess how things are sounding has improved a lot, as well as general things like time management and planning rehearsals.”

It was vital that these musical components came together efficiently, as much of Merrily rides on the power and intrigue of sound.

“It’s all kinds of wacky harmonies and wacky notes, with just immaculate lyricism,” O’Loughlin said. “Really top-notch stuff.”

College first-year Gina Fontanesi, who plays Ru/Girl Auditioning/a cameraman in her first-ever musical, would encourage audiences to treat the lyrics and themes of the music with special care.

“The music isn’t super beautiful, but once you start to learn it or you hear it over and over you really understand the nuances in the language used … and the way [the story] goes backwards starts to make sense,” Fontanesi explained. “While watching, you should really pay attention. … You’ll [realize] this is complicated, but really well done.”

The process of putting on the show was an undoubtedly complex one, especially since OMTA is entirely student-run — a feat compounded by the fact that this particular show was done without an advisor.

“This is completely done by students, and I think it’s amazing,” Bowman said. “We even built the stage that people are going to be dancing on.”

The cast and crew sees this performance as a real labor of love. “Sometimes it’s easy to see why it failed [initially], because it’s really hard to get right,” Bowman mused, “but I think with this production we have it right.”

Performances will take place in Wilder Main on April 19, 20, and 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $3 in advance or $5 at the door.